Phyllis Schlafly Still Championing The Anti-Feminist Fight

She's a lawyer, author, mother of six and a icon of the country's anti-feminist movement. Phyllis Schlafly is best known for her successful 1973 campaign to stop the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. For decades, she has stuck by her beliefs that a woman's place is in the kitchen. She's been named one of the 100 most important women of the 20th century by Ladies Home Journal. As part of Tell Me More's focus on Women's History Month, host Michel Martin speaks to the 86-year-old conservative activist about her life and career.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Now we go to our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's the part of the program where we talk to those who've made a difference in their work. In honor of Women's History Month, we've been putting a special emphasis on women who've made a difference. And my guest today is conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly. She is a mother of six, a lawyer, a syndicated columnist, author or editor of some 20 books, a radio host. She's been named one of the 100 Most Important Women of the 20th Century by Ladies Home Journal.

She might be best known for her successful campaign to stop passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Let's listen to a clip of Phyllis Schlafly from March 1973.

Ms. PHYLLIS SCHLAFLY (Lawyer, Author, Radio Host): Since the women are the ones who bear the babies and there's nothing we can do about that, our laws and customs then make it the financial obligation of the husband to provide the support. It is his obligation and his sole obligation. And this is exactly and precisely what we will lose if the Equal Rights Amendment is passed.

MARTIN: The Equal Rights Amendment fell three states short of becoming a constitutional amendment, due in large part to the grassroots campaign led by Phyllis Schlafly. Today, at the age of 86, she remains as active as ever. In fact, she has a new book out. It's co-authored with her niece, Suzanne Venker, called "The Flipside of Feminism." And Phyllis Schlafly joins us now from St. Louis, Missouri. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. SCHLAFLY: Hello, Michel. Thank you for having me on.

MARTIN: Now, I know that you were an icon to many people in the conservative movement, but there are some who are not familiar with your early life and career. And I wanted to just mention that in a 2006 New York Times article, you were quoted as saying, I grew up believing that I should support myself. And, in fact, you were quite accomplished, even as a young woman. You put yourself through school at Washington University. You later got a master's in political science from Harvard. You earned a law degree.

Many people with your background have embraced the feminist movement. And I wanted to ask, when is it that you started to question the feminist movement?

Ms. SCHLAFLY: When I went to the hearings for the Equal Rights Amendment and I heard what they were saying, and they had absolutely no benefit to offer women, but we could see a lot of disadvantages in it.

MARTIN: What is it that you saw that made you feel that way?

Ms. SCHLAFLY: What that amendment would do is to make all laws sex-neutral. Well, the typical, classic law that is not sex-neutral is the draft registration law. And we were still in the Vietnam War in 1972. I had sons and daughters about age 18. My daughters thought this was the craziest thing they ever heard. You're going to have a new amendment for women? And the first thing is they'll have to sign up for the draft like their brothers. Now, that was an unsaleable proposition.

MARTIN: Is it true that you took the bar exam wearing a disguise so that you wouldn't be inundated by the media?

Ms. SCHLAFLY: Well, yes. My children didn't want me to take the bar exam because they were afraid that if I failed, like Ted Kennedy, it would be on the front page. So I wore the black wig and went up and nobody recognized me the first day. But the second day of the exam, when I left, I walked right into the arms of a Chicago Tribune photographer and reporter.

MARTIN: And you did pass.

Ms. SCHLAFLY: Oh yes, of course I passed.

MARTIN: How did you manage, though? As a mother of six, as your husband was -certainly had a busy career of his own, and being as significant a national figure as you have been, how did you manage?

Ms. SCHLAFLY: Well, politics was my hobby. And I really spent 25 years as a full-time homemaker before I did any particular traveling around. And by that time the children were well along in school or college. And they were very supportive. My husband was very supportive. I told the feminists the only person's permission I had to get was my husband's.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit about the new book, if you would. What is it - your message in this book that you feel is particularly current for today?

Ms. SCHLAFLY: A lot of people don't understand what feminism is. They think it is about advance and success for women, but it's not that at all. It is about power for the female left. And they have this, I think, ridiculous idea that American women are oppressed by the patriarchy and we need laws and government to solve our problems for us. They have made their close alliance with the Obama administration. And they're always crying around about things like the differences between men and women are just a social construct. So they're really in a fight with human nature. I would not want to be called a feminist. The feminists don't believe in success for women and, of course, I believe that American women are the most fortunate people who ever lived on the face of the earth, can do anything they make up their minds to do.

I think people ought to understand what a large control the feminists have over the media, and that's why you don't hear some of the other side.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about that because you're very tough on women in the media in the book. You say: most of the women in the media are working mothers themselves. They drop their children off at daycare or leave them with a nanny every morning before they report to their job. Thus, they're hardly in a position to address the topic in an unbiased manner; doing so would make them feel like bad mothers and would require a major overhaul in the way they've been taught to think about women and work, and they're not about to do this. Simply put, the feminist elite are incapable of making the parallel between children's well-being and the absence of mothers from the home.

But I wanted to ask you about that, because some of the women you criticize in the book, like Maria Shriver, former NBC correspondent and anchor, wife of the former governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, clearly subordinated her career to his, I mean has written about that in her memoir, giving up an anchor job that she dearly loved in order to not be away from her children, support her young children and her husband and his career. Katie Couric, whose husband died when their children were very young, died of cancer. What would you have someone like her do?

Ms. SCHLAFLY: Oh, well, I'm not trying to run anybody else's lives. But in general, the feminists don't want to suppress their own desires and ambitions for the welfare of their children. And the feminists look upon society's expectation that mothers look after their own children as part of the oppression of women. I do not believe women are oppressed in this society.

MARTIN: I understand what you're saying, except that - this is not to make a statement about whether women are oppressed or not, but simply to say they are not the majority in any of the major professions in this country, except the traditional female professions, like nursing and teaching. For example, only 30 percent of the lawyer members of the ABA are women. Only about 30 percent of the practicing physicians in this country are women and, of course, about 17 percent of members of both the House and the Senate are women.

The book makes the very strong argument that feminist ideology, as you define it, is dominating the academy, is basically dominating society, and I'm arguing with you about why you think that is when it would appear that women are still doing exactly what you would suggest that they should do.

Ms. SCHLAFLY: I think the main goal of the feminist movement was the status degradation of the full-time homemaker. They really wanted to get all women out of the homes and into the workforce. And again and again, they taught that the only fulfilling lifestyle was to be in the workforce reporting to a boss instead of being in the home reporting to a husband. That is an attitude toward marriage and homemaking that I think is intolerable and false.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and in honor of Women's History Month, we are having conversations with women who've made a difference.

Today, we're having a Wisdom Watch conversation with Phyllis Schlafly. She's been a national figure in America's conservative movement for half a century. She's co-authored a new book called "The Flipside of Feminism." She's co-authored that with Suzanne Venker, who is her niece.

You've run for political office yourself a couple times. You ran in 1952. You ran for Congress as a Republican, and you ran again in 1970 for a congressional seat in Illinois. Why do you think you didn't win?

Ms. SCHLAFLY: The first time I was in a very heavily Democratic district, and it was when Eisenhower was running and I did as well as Eisenhower in that district but that wasn't good enough. In 1970, it was a bad year for Republicans. The Republican governor had given us a state income tax for the first time and the voters were angry. So that's basically why I didn't win. But after a couple of years I was glad I hadn't won.

MARTIN: How come?

Ms. SCHLAFLY: Well, it enabled me to pick up the fight for conservatism and against the Equal Rights Amendment, which I picked up in 1972. So I was not sorry that I lost. But I can tell you why they're not more women in Congress, is because running for office is a dog's life and there are few women who like it and will do it, but certainly not in the same proportion as men.

MARTIN: There are some women who are rising stars in politics who are conservative women who have young children, like Kristi Noem of South Dakota, who is in Congress now. She's a freshman. Of course, there's Sarah Palin, who is a mother of five, still raising her children and is, of course, I think, by every measure a national star. Then, of course, there's Michele Bachmann.

What is your view of what they are doing?

Ms. SCHLAFLY: I think they've made choices that are very difficult, but they can do it very well. But you notice the feminists are angry at them. They cannot resist attacking Sarah Palin because they really don't believe in success for women. Those women you name are success by any standard whether you are like them or not. And you notice the deafening silence coming from the feminist movement after all those Republican pro-life women won last November 2nd.

MARTIN: Do you feel that feminism has made any contribution to American life?

Ms. SCHLAFLY: No. I think it's made women unhappy and it's to make them believe that we live in a discriminatory and unjust society, and that they should look to government to solve their problems.

MARTIN: What is your advice to the young women in your family - and the men, for that matter?

Ms. SCHLAFLY: Well, I think as we say in the book, that it's unfortunate that colleges and women's studies courses guide women to a career path that has no space for men, marriage or children. And I think you should plot a life that will give you the joy of marriage and children.

MARTIN: You know, I hear many young men say that they want careers that will allow them to more fully enjoy family life too.

Ms. SCHLAFLY: Well, I think so. But they find, some of the women say they don't want to take care of their own babies. I don't know why a man would marry a woman like that. I tell the college kids they ought to find out if the girl they're dating is a feminist or not.

MARTIN: I guess what I was asking is, I hear a lot of young men say that they want the same thing. They want careers that will allow them to enjoy family life as well. Is that wrong?

Ms. SCHLAFLY: No it's not wrong. But I do think that gender roles are valid. We do look to the men to be providers and protectors. Now there's some people who successfully plan it another way and they don't have to get my permission to do that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCHLAFLY: They simply have to find a young man who wants to do that.

MARTIN: Many look at your career and they say I just want what you had, which is you had a very rich, you still have, very rich public life and you had a family, and so what's so terrible?

Ms. SCHLAFLY: Well, I've had a very full and very happy life. But in the common parlance, I am a sequential woman. I did it at different times in my life. When I had a baby, I didn't leave the second floor for six months. I nursed my babies. I was a full-time homemaker. I taught them all how to read before I let them go to school. So I gave them that care in the early life that somehow feminists have been led to believe is demeaning and is not worth the time of an educated woman.

MARTIN: As I mentioned earlier, and I hope you don't mind my telling your age, because ladies often don't want to tell their age but...

Ms. SCHLAFLY: Well, when you get to my age it doesn't matter.

MARTIN: It doesn't matter. Just give up. You're still at it. As I understand it, you work every day. I read in the foreword of the book your children, actually, and grandchildren would prefer that you actually slow down a little bit. How come you don't?

Ms. SCHLAFLY: Politics has been my lifetime hobby. I enjoy the contest of it and, of course, we've had some big victories. I feel it's as important as ever before, that good people be active in politics today so that we can keep America on the right path.

MARTIN: Can I ask you about race for a minute? There is a very large percentage of out-of-wedlock birth in the black community. But African-American women on the whole are not terribly supportive of the feminist movement, have not been kind of strongly identified with it, do embrace marriage, don't embrace a lot of the anti-male rhetoric that you're so critical of. And yet, marriage is not as prominent in our community, in the African-American community as it was even in 1959...

Ms. SCHLAFLY: Yeah. Well, I...

MARTIN: I'm just curious why you think that is. In 1959, for example, African Americans were more likely to be married than whites were, but now it's the reverse and I'm just wondering if you have an opinion about that.

Ms. SCHLAFLY: Yes. And you realize it's not poverty that's caused that, because all during the Great Depression the black family was intact and together and they didn't have these handouts. I think when Lyndon Johnson instituted lavish welfare, they gave the money only to the woman and that made the father irrelevant. He lacked his role, his duty as a provider so he took off. And that is just simply so unfortunate. The illegitimacy rate is now getting very large even across the board, among the white people. And it's too bad because we know that most of the social ills come out of mother-headed households. So if you're asking me for the cause, it doesn't really have anything to do with race. It has to do with the financial subsidies that were given to women making the father provider irrelevant.

MARTIN: You say in the book we should have a newfound respect for men. What did you mean by that?

Ms. SCHLAFLY: Well, I think the feminists are anti-men and anti-masculine. I think it starts in grade school. I have illustrations in the book of how elementary school is frequently very unfair to little boys, such as building new schools without recess or playgrounds. Boys are different from girls and they need to run around and work off some of that energy so they can come in and sit down and learn something. Then the way the feminists have tried to ban boys' sports in college. They have made the colleges ban 450 wrestling teams.

MARTIN: Why do you blame feminists for the decline in some of these college sports? Because there are number of people would argue that it's really the expense of a few sports deprive others, like swimming, for example. You know, you have to have a physical plant, you have to have a pool, you have to have insurance. Why do you think it's feminists?

Ms. SCHLAFLY: Well, I reject that notion. It's feminism because it is the radical feminists in the education department, first in the Carter administration and then in the Clinton administration, who've been dogging the life out of the colleges to cut the men's sports and do a bean counting operation to make sure just as many women as men are on sports teams, and in fact, they want it to be proportional, so that now we know they've chased so many men out of college - colleges are now 60/40 female to male - so they want 60 percent of the sports teams and scholarships to be female and that is absolutely ridiculous and unfair.

MARTIN: So girls shouldn't play sports?

Ms. SCHLAFLY: Girls can play sports if they want. They're plenty of opportunities for girls to play sports. But they will not do it in the same proportion as men.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, this is a Wisdom Watch conversation, so we always like to end by asking do you have some wisdom that you want to share?

Ms. SCHLAFLY: Well, yes, I would say, don't be taken in by feminism. Just remember American women are so fortunate. When I got married, all I wanted in the world was a dryer so I didn't have to hang up my diapers. And now women have paper diapers and all sorts of conveniences in the home. And it is the men and the technology that has made the home such a pleasant place for women to be. So I hope they will use that pleasant place to raise their children.

MARTIN: Phyllis Schlafly is a conservative activist. She's the author or the editor of 20 books. As we mentioned, she's been named one of the 100 Most Influential Women of the Century by Ladies Home Journal. She's the founder of the Eagle Forum. Her latest book, co-authored with her niece Suzanne Venker, is called "The Flipside of Feminism," and she joined us from St. Louis, Missouri.

Thank you so much for joining us today.

Ms. SCHLAFLY: Thank you, Michel.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And finally, at TELL ME MORE, we will be celebrating National Poetry Month in April. An occasional series called Muses and Metaphor will combine two passions of this program: social media and poetry. We would like you to go on Twitter and tweet us your original poetry, using fewer than 140 characters, of course. We will choose our favorites, and if your poem is chosen, we will help you record it for us and we will air it. Tweet us using the hashtag TMMPOETRY.

You can learn more at the TELL ME MORE website. Go to npr.org. Click on the Programs tab to find TELL ME MORE. And again, #TMMPOETRY.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of music)

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